Friday, August 12, 2016

Genetically Modified Fashion

The usage of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food crops has sparked a number of international debates: intellectual property concerns, "food copyrighting," genetic ethics and overall environmental and human impact have been sparred over, often at the legal level. From local courts to the height of debate within enormous technocratic institutions and big agricultural corporations, GMOs have been a hotly contested topic.

DNA double helix rotating animation gifTo what degree, then, could we genetically modify the plants used in textile production to ensure a higher degree of sustainability and more attention paid to rare ecological resources? Unfortunately, cutting edge modifications to cotton by big agricultural organizations has done very little to reduce water usage, instead choosing to enhance the crop's resistance to extreme heat, serving to guarantee a higher quantity of fibers produced. This modification is extremely beneficial to Pakistan's cotton-based economy, with heat sensitivity representing one of the most important yield limit factors. 

We have successfully identified the genes which control heat response in cotton crops. Unfortunately, cotton remains one of the thirstiest crops in existence, with a mere 1kg of cotton often requiring 20,000 liters of water to produce.  California used to produce a massive amount of cotton but simply cannot afford to during their current drought, with many farmers choosing less thirsty crop alternatives. If we can't genetically modify cotton to produce larger quantities of fiber with less water, what about increasing wool production?

Genetically modified sheep
Through genetic modification of the forage crops and rumen bacteria which control nutritional factors in sheep populations, we could (potentially) sustainably increase the production of wool. If the land and livestock are managed properly, it is not unbelievable that genetically modified animals and forage crops could one day produce enough wool to challenge the cotton industry, which currently constitutes about 60% of garments worldwide. 

If sheep can be genetically modified to develop a resistance to parasites, "sheep dip," a chemical used to rid the pests, could be substituted and eventually fall out of use. This toxic chemical represents one of the largest ecological dangers of the wool industry, but is one which has a solution, like many ecological problems, in future genetic modification.

CRISPR and our bright future
With very recent breakthroughs in our understanding of "Cas9" and our newfound control of primitive CRISPR  technology, the future of textile production may be radically different than our current estimations. With patent fights breaking out over hemp production, sustainable and efficient hemp plants may supplant cotton in the distant future. For more information on CRISPR and genetic modification, the following is a wonderful video.

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